Golden Rule

An Explanation Is in Order

In two recent posts (“Libertarianism and Morality” and “Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote“) I make it a point to locate social morality in the beneficial social convention known as the Golden Rule, which arises from self-interest and empathy. This might come as a surprise to readers who are familiar with my deism (see this and this), my denunciation of strident atheism (see this, for example), and the high value I place on the Judeo-Christian tradition (see this, for example).

As a deist, I am not prepared to say that morality comes directly from God, about whose nature and involvement in the workings of the universe I am agnostic. I am prepared to say the following:

  • It is possible that there is a God who takes a “personal” interest in human beings and their doings.
  • Such a God could have endowed human beings with free will.
  • The Golden Rule, as a manifestation of free will, would therefore be God-given.
  • And the degree to which human beings abide by the Golden Rule could be one “test” (among others) by which God judges the worthiness of His creatures, individually and collectively.

Libertarianism and Morality

I have come late to Jan Narveson‘s The Libertarian Idea, which is the subject of a series of posts at Libertarianism.org; thus far:

The Libertarian Idea: Setting the Scene (11/04/11)
The Libertarian Idea: Part One, part one (11/14/11)
Morality and Its Discontents (11/21/11)
Is Contractarianism Serious (Or Just Clever)? 11/21/11

So much libertarian theorizing, it seems to me, amounts to the search for an intellectual hook on which to hang an instinctive yearning to be left alone. The intellectualization of the yearning proceeds in stages. The first stage is an appeal to morality. But this cannot be the kind of morality that arises from social constructs (e.g. the Golden Rule); it must be a “higher morality.” This leads libertarian theorists — or most of them, in my reading — toward “natural rights” and “natural law.” But, as atheists (which most libertarian theorists seem to be), they cannot attribute “natural rights” or “natural law” to God, so they conjure super-human sources that lie somewhere between God and social convention. Narveson call this conjuring “intuitionism.”

One such source, which is no less supernatural than God, is Platonic in character: “natural rights” just are (and known, by some mysterious process, to the proponents of this view). The chief alternative to Platonism is evolution: “natural rights” as evolutionary adaptation (though how one knows which rights are “natural” remains a puzzle). I have said much about these intellectual misfires in several posts; for example:

“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology

Narveson, by contrast with other libertarian philosophers, is refreshingly clear-minded about the roots of libertarianism. The following is taken from a version of The Libertarian Idea that is available online (here).


Libertarians in general support their views by appeals to intuitions, especially intuitions about our “natural rights”. This is a method that has very wide currency in contemporary philosophy; it is by no means confined to libertarians. Libertarians who base their convictions on intuition are thus in good company. This, as we shall see, is ironic, for the other members of that company have widely varying views about these matters. The burning issue thus becomes, whose intuitions are the right ones? But adoption of the intuitional method virtually precludes rational decision of that burning issue; it simply continues to burn. (from “The Options,” in Chapter 9)

*   *   *

By “Metaphysical” intuitionism I mean the view that there exist some sort of “ethical entities” which are denoted by such words as ‘good’ or ‘right’ or ‘just’ (as the case may be); and that ethical knowledge is acquired by the mind’s “apprehending” or, as we may say, “spotting” one or more of those at the appropriate points. On this view, when we say that an act is Right, we mean that it has one of these properties — namely “That one!”…

The shortcomings of this “metaphysical” type of intuitionism are legion, and it is not surprising that as an option it is virtually extinct among current philosophers. (I say ‘virtually’, because no theory I can think of is totally extinct among current philosophers….) (from “Metaphysical Intuitionism” in Chapter 10)

*   *   *

Especially in this scientifically-oriented era, the appeal to what seem mysterious entities and faculties is likely to elicit impatience, and perhaps a certain amount of irritation. To those of us who don’t seem to have one of the special faculties required for detecting these strange items, this explanation isn’t going to be much help… (from “Mysteriousness” in Chapter 10)

*   *   *

In the past few decades, long after Metaphysical intuitionism was relegated to the philosophical dust-bins, a presumably quite different use of “intuitions” in moral philosophy was elevated to the status of theoretical respectability — not a new one, to be sure, since philosophers have been doing it, to a greater or lesser extent, since Plato. In this version, we supposedly make no assumptions about the fundamental meanings of moral terms or the sort of things they may refer to. Rather, we employ intuitions as a sort of data, and construct a theory to “explain” them. The fact is that people have tendencies to affirm of certain things that they are right, others that they are wrong, and so on; and the moral philosopher’s job is to find the principles which will account for these tendencies. Of course, this is moral philosophy, and so the output of our theorizing will be moral statements and not just statements about morality….

Now, consider what philosophers wish to do with their appeals to intuitions. They are discussing some controversial topic, ordinarily — nobody writes articles advocating the view that murder is wrong! But in a controversial area, we are going to have some people sincerely maintaining that something or other is right, and others that that very same thing is wrong. Abortion, for example, or capital punishment of repeat-murderers. Of what use is it to point out to people holding some view on these matters that a great many people think otherwise than they — or the same as they? Suppose some small minority thinks that a certain popular practice is quite wrong. Are they going to be impressed to hear that many people don’t think so?

It is here that this new sort of appeals to intuition gets into some of the very same problems that its less-respectable Metaphysical version has. When people have contrary intuitions, appeals to intuition are not likely to do much — except maybe irritate the people we’re trying to persuade.

In fact, appeals to intuition can hardly constitute reasons for the very attitudes that those intuitions express. The best they might do is provide a rather weak sort of evidence. We might say, “well, surely 90% of the people are unlikely to be wrong, are they?” Perhaps that is true. But the trouble is, it is also true that 90% of the people plainly can be wrong, about all sorts of things: why not about this, then? Especially when the effect of their opinion is to cram something down the craws of the remaining 10%. (from “Methodological Intuitionism” in Chapter 10)

*   *   *

My objection to appeal to intuitions in moral theory is, in brief, that when (not merely ‘if’!) intuitions conflict, we are bereft of conceptual tools for reaching reasoned agreement. Indeed, one must say that under those conditions, “reasoned” agreement is impossible. Surely it would be better, at any rate, if we could have a theory that was persuasive without presupposing anything like moral intuitions.  (from “The Need for Clarity about Morality” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

We have a habit of talking as though moral principles were simply “truths”, like those of science: as though they were just “out there”, to be discovered, found out. But it’s not quite like that. Either you act in certain ways or you don’t. No mere external truth could make you do that. There are, certainly, “external truths” to which we must conform, willy-nilly: the Law of Gravity, for example. But the “must” here is so literal that “conform” is out of place. The gunman makes me conform, by threatening to shoot me if I do not. In some sense I can refuse to go along; if so, and he shoots me, I shall then literally have no choice but to die, if he’s a competent shot. We “conform” to the Law of Gravity in the same sense that we die if shot; it simply isn’t a matter of choice at all.

Moral principles and rules are just that: principles and rules for behavior, to which we can voluntarily conform or no….(from “Personal vs. Social Morality” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

One apparent aim of the Libertarian is to provide a schedule of rights that is “hard”, so that in any given case we will always be able to identify the area of permissible action, precisely bounded by the relevant set of rights. Moreover, these are to be wholly “nonteleological” in one sense of that rather obscure term. That is, they are not to be founded upon considerations of the general good or general interest…. (from “The Compleat Deontologist” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

[W]e tend to identify morality with what is taught us in our childhoods, say, or with what the people around us will react to in certain ways. Any given society will have a number of rules which are enforced in the various ways mentioned above. The fact that they are thus enforced provides, and of course is intended to provide, some motivation for doing what the enforcers are trying to get us to do. But is that the end of the story? Are we to say, simply, that what is right is what people will praise and reward you for doing, or blame and punish you for not doing? It is not, and we are not. For we are capable of reflecting on these demands, and of questioning them….

…The de facto rules of morality may be accounted conventional — by definition, indeed. And this in particular means that they are, at least to a degree, changeable. They are certainly changeable in some way, since they do change. Whether they are changeable by intention, like the law, which is made and unmade by certain intentional acts of certain people, the legislators, is quite another matter. And one would certainly have to be naïve to think that writing a tract or two is enough to do the job! It wouldn’t even if everyone would read the tract; which, in a society of millions, they certainly won’t.

There is thus a question of what to do, as it were, with any “philosophical” or “critical” morality we might come up with…. But there is also an answer: one can act on it oneself. One can start criticizing people in the light of these possibly novel principles you have found to be more reasonable than the ones actually reinforced in your current society….

One of the historic projects of philosophy is to try to find some or other rational foundations for morality, or at any rate for some morality, some set of overriding general guides to behavior which, even if it is not entirely reflected in current practice, has the solidest reasons for being so…. I shall shortly describe, again very briefly, what seems to be the best answer currently available. Like all answers judged to be so by philosophers, the judgment is guided by a certain sense that no other view could be right. This is philosophical hübris at work, no doubt: history has a way of suggesting that we have overlooked something when we make such claims. That’s a risk one simply has to take. (from “Conventional vs. Critical Morality” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

That theory, I think, is Contractarianism. The general idea of this theory is that the principles of morality are (or should be) those principles for directing everyone’s conduct which are reasonable for everyone to accept. They are the rules which everyone has good reason for wanting everyone to act on, and thus to internalize in himself or herself, and thus to reinforce in the case of everyone.

In so saying, I am presenting a slanted view, so to say. As with every important philosophical theory, this one has many different versions with their own specific shades and twists, and the shades and twists are not trivial. Contractarianism can be made to seem arbitrary and silly: consider, for instance, the suggestion that long, long ago, our remote ancestors made this deal, see, and from that day to this everyone has had to go along with it! Plainly such a theory is not going to give us the rational motivation we need.

On the other hand, any ordinary contract, made in the full light of day between consenting adults, supplies motivation in just the required sense. The “required sense”, as will shortly be seen, is not so simple. But few will dispute that any theory that could attain the same degree of rational “bite” as actual contracts would be doing very well indeed.

The problem is that morality is obviously not the result of a literal contract; and indeed, it cannot be, among other things for the very good reason pointed out by David Hume, namely that “the observance of promises is itself one of the most considerable parts of justice; and we are not surely bound to keep our word because we have given our word to keep it.” To account for the obligation to keep promises on the basis of a general promise to do so seems, shall we say, unpromising Clearly the sense in which morality is founded upon or due to or represents an “agreement” is going to have to be less straightforward than that. (from the introductory section of Chapter 12)

*   *   *

What the philosopher would really like is a universal “contract” in the sense of an agreement which literally everyone would find it reasonable to accept. It is not clear that this can be done. Perhaps people are too different, or have interests that are fundamentally, irresolvably antagonistic. If so, it’s put paid for our project. It is so because our interests are indeed what we have to appeal to as the basis of the “social contract”.

But it should not be thought that this possibility puts paid to the theory in question. There are at least two reasons why not. In the first place, the truth about morality could be that it cannot be quite as universal as all that. The insistence that it must be may be just a philosopher’s prejudice, comparable to the Aristotelian idea that of course the earth must be the centre of the physical Universe.
But secondly, and more hearteningly, the possible nonuniversality we are worrying about may be nothing to worry about….

Let us suppose that morality is a kind of club — the “morality club”. Anyone can join — no problem. Those who join have certain responsibilities and certain rights, and we, the people who run this club, offer a package that we think no remotely reasonable person could really refuse; but nevertheless, some might. All we are saying is that our package is such that it must appeal to the widest set of people any set of principles could appeal to. Anyone who doesn’t buy our package wouldn’t buy any package compatible with living among his fellows on terms that they could possibly accept. (from “Universality?” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

All this has been quite abstract. Let us now see how it works in more nearly real-world terms. One of the contractarians’ favorite real-world types is the philosopher Thomas Hobbes5 In the Hobbesian picture, at least as understood by me, the place to begin is a wild and unruly sort of place known as the “state of nature”. In this state — a highly artificial one, in truth, but we’ll worry about that a little later — there is no morality at all. Nobody acknowledges any restrictions whatever on his or her behavior vis-a-vis others, nobody blames or praises anyone else’s conduct, and it is quite literally everyone for him-or-herself. And what happens there? All sorts of horrible things, in brief. Since there are no rules at all, there are of course no rules against violence, which is freely employed whenever the person employing it thinks it will get him what he wants….

What is important to the argument here is that the cause of this condition is the absence of rules, rules having precisely the character we have attributed to Morality: namely, rules that can override the individual inclinations of any person to the contrary, and rules that are the same for all….

It is important to appreciate just what Hobbes’ argument does and what it does not presuppose about people. It does not, to begin with, presuppose that people are nasty or evil by nature….

Nor does it actually require that their interests are selfish or even strongly self-directed, though Hobbes evidently believed that they would normally be. But what matters is that they have conflicting ends, however the conflict may be engendered….

We now need to bring out a further feature about the sort of conflicts Hobbes is concerned about. From the point of view of each party to the conflict, the “warlike” solution may seem preferable to the “peaceful” one…. [T]here is a problem with mutual arrangements of all sorts, since in such cases, each party gives up something in return for something he wants more; yet given the opportunity, he’d presumably prefer to have both the gains from the deal and also not to have to pay the costs he has undertaken by his promise to pay.
This situation is known as Prisoner’s Dilemma….

Hobbes’ own view is in line with modern theorists: the rational individual will rat in such situations. And Hobbes’ “solution”, as we know, is the Policeman, otherwise known as the “Sovereign”. Gauthier’s solution is to take what many theorists regard as the heroic course of identifying rationality with the disposition to take the cooperative option. The one recommended here may perhaps be classified as intermediate between the two…. (from “Hobbes” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

The Hobbesian solution may seem all well and good, perhaps. But there are two crucial shortcomings. The first is: how do we get a suitable Enforcer appointed? In our hypothetical state of nature, nobody already has the kind of power needed; that power must be “handed over” by those concerned. But you don’t just “hand over” power: instead, you make an agreement which gives someone the power. Terrific — but that agreement would have to be, genuinely, an agreement – the very sort of thing which can’t be done in the state of nature on Hobbes’ own reasoning. The second is that enforcers are costly. For one thing, they cost money, or the equivalent (in his State of Nature there was, of course, no money), viz., whatever sacrifices A and B have to make in order to make it worth C’s while to be Guardian. (Once C somehow got the power in question, of course, there is the further point that C will surely be inclined to use it to feather his own nest — a small incidental concern, in one sense, but in another, of course, one that has been a or even the main problem with Government, historically as well as theoretically.) (from “The Sovereign” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

Here enters David Gauthier with his intriguing new solution.7 Gauthier insists that the rational agent, when acquainting himself with the facts of life in the form of Prisoner’s Dilemma (and related problems), will see that he must modify, or perhaps reinterpret, his theory of rationality. The rational man will not Defect in the Prisoner’s Dilemma game. Instead, he will adopt a disposition to cooperate, though not an unconditional disposition to take the cooperative option: he takes that option, provided those with whom he interacts are similarly inclined. This he calls “constrained maximization”, as opposed to the disposition to take the money and run, which he calls “straight” maximization….

Constrained maximizers will do better than defectors, for they will do as well as defectors when interacting with defectors, since their rule is to cooperate only with fellow constrained maximizers, and they will do better than defectors when interacting with constrained maximizers, since the defector’s policy is to defect when interacting with anybody. Gauthier’s argument is that it is therefore rational to adopt the constrained maximization disposition….

Now in the classic, one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma, it is not true that our move is a response to the other person’s move. We and the other player are moving simultaneously, for instance, or at any rate moving in such a way that neither can know what the other player’s move is until after we have made our own. Real-life models of Prisoner’s Dilemma may be characterized in just that way. To create any real-life Prisoner’s Dilemma, we must take steps, if necessary intentionally rigging the situation so as to ensure that this condition holds. This ensures that our move will not be literally a “response” to the other player’s move. If it is a “response” at all in this literal sense of the term, then what could it be a response to?

It is when we contemplate this question that the force of Gauthier’s position asserts itself. For it seems that the only thing there is to respond to here is the disposition of the other player…. Each can know something about the other, and what they know will be largely information about character, derived of course more or less inductively from observation of past performance in particular cases. (from “Gauthier’s View” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

Now let’s go back to the State of Nature and ask what to do. There are as yet no rules, and without them, life is miserable for everyone….

What we will do, in fact, is whatever we can to set Morality in motion: a social institution of reinforcing behavior. And which behavior? Plainly, cooperative behavior: that is, behavior which it is advantageous from the point of view of each one of us to have everyone, including ourselves, engaging in. This is the rational thing to do in social situations for a simple reason: it doesn’t cost very much by comparison with having a Sovereign (and anyway, we don’t have one yet — remember? And we can’t until we have enough morality to enable the Agreement to establish the sovereign to be viable), and the advantages of general performance much outweigh the disadvantages imposed by the necessity of having to comply oneself.

Generally speaking, then, the foundation of morality is the interests of those party to it, given the facts of social life. Morality is a set of requirements which will make us all better off if they are met by everyone — and which, accordingly, are liable to the problem of defection by some who will try to take the money and run. For examples, the murderer and the thief, who have been cheerfully collecting the benefits of social cooperation all along, and yet at the judicious moment will take advantage of the good dispositions of those they interact with by depriving them of their lives or property without a by-your-leave. (from “Morality, the Real World, and Prisoner’s Dilemma” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

Why accept the contractarian view of morals? Because there is no other view that can serve the requirements: namely, of providing reasons to everyone for accepting it, no matter what their personal values or philosophy of life may be, and thus motivating this informal, yet society-wide “institution”. Without resort to any obfuscating intuitions, e.g., of “self-evident rights” and the like, the contractarian view offers an intelligible account both of why it is rational to want a morality and of what, broadly speaking, the essentials of that morality will consist in: namely, those general rules which are universally advantageous to rational agents. We each need morality, first because we are vulnerable to the depredations of others, and second because we can all benefit from cooperation with others. So we need protection, in the form of the ability to rely on our fellows not to engage in activities harmful to us; and we need to be able to rely on those with whom we deal. We each need this regardless of what else we need or want or value. (the introductory paragraph of Chapter 13)

*   *   *

Many philosophers, such as Aquinas and John Locke, have held that there is a “Natural Law”. This idea was not clarified by these philosophers, although that they had fairly explicit ideas about its content. Aquinas, for example, held that natural law (like all law) had to be for the “common good”. And Locke in particular held that the natural law forbids all men to refrain from injuring others in their “life, health, liberty, and possessions”. Their lack of articulation of the concept of natural law, however, has left them short of adherents among contemporary philosophers trained in the analytic tradition. Insofar as they simply appeal to natural law without further explication or defense, they are liable to all of the charges I have laid above to the door of intuitionism in all its forms.

But perhaps further reflection on the Prisoner’s Dilemma and other decision-theoretic problems can assist understanding here. To say that a law is “natural”, to begin with, obviously cannot mean that it is like the law of gravity, governing us independently of our wills. Were the content of Locke’s natural law operative on us in that manner, there would be no need of ethics as we know it. However, this doesn’t preclude a different way in which a “law” could be “natural”. It could, namely, be natural in being acknowledged, recognized, or employed implicitly as a canon of interpersonal criticism of behavior, without articulation, in the normal dealings of people with each other.

Even as so characterized, it is not clear that there is a “natural law”. But we can inject one further element. Locke and Aquinas both insisted that the natural law was “rational”, “apprehended by reason”, or words to that effect. What we can forthrightly say is that there are reasons, reasons that are natural rather than being in their turn artificial constructs, favoring informal reinforcement of certain rules for interpersonal situations. Prisoner’s Dilemma, concentrated on above, gives a beautiful example. Wherever the structure of preferences of the different parties is clear to both parties (and it is not always), we have a basis for a rule of precisely that kind: a natural basis for a moral rule, in fact. The claim that natural morality calls upon us to refrain from the things Locke lists, and more generally that it bids us cooperate in what would otherwise be prisoner’s dilemmas, may be accepted if understood along the lines just explicated. We should expect any groups of persons who were clear about the options which would otherwise render the situation a prisoner’s dilemma situation, and who were capable of communicating effectively with each other, to recognize as an interpersonally authoritative rule that people refrain from the “Defect” strategy, and to recognize this by verbal and other sorts of reinforcement. So understood, we may accept the idea of Natural Law nearly enough. What its relation to political structures may be is, of course, another question, and the main question dealt with in this book.

But it is apropos to note here that the moral factor is potentially substantial. James Buchanan observes that “.. it is essential to incorporate some treatment of the role that ethical precepts play in maintaining social stability. First … if there is no conflict … there is no need for law, as such. By the same token, however, there is no need for ethics … When conflict does emerge, however, .. the value of order suggests either some social contract, some system of formal law, or some generally accepted set of ethical-moral precepts. It is important to recognize that these are alternative means of securing order. To the extent that ethical precepts are widely shared, and influence individual behavior, there is less need for the more formal restrictiveness of legally imposed standards.” (from “The Natural Law” in Chapter 13)


Narveson echoes much what I have said in the posts linked above. So, I find myself in close agreement with Narveson because I find him in close agreement with me. The kind of “contract” that Narveson describes is found in the Golden Rule. This is from “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’“:

The Golden Rule represents a social compromise that reconciles the various natural imperatives of human behavior (envy, combativeness, meddlesomeness, etc.). To the extent that negative rights prevail, it is as part and parcel of the “bargain” that is embedded in the Golden Rule; that is, they are honored not because of their innateness in humans but because of their beneficial consequences.

But is that all there is to it? Not at all. This is from “The Golden Rule and the State“:

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

The empathic source of the Golden Rule, which is just as important as the self-interested source, is (for me) the key point of Julian Sanchez’s critique of Narveson in “Morality and Its Discontents“:

In effect, [Narveson] wants to reduce morality to prudence, showing that people would have strictly self-interested reasons to constrain their own behavior even if they are not “reasonable” or concerned with the welfare and dignity of others except insofar as those others are able to aid or hinder their self interested pursuits….

…[A]ttempts to reduce morality to prudence generally assume that there’s something metaphysically unproblematic about the idea, not just that people do care about their long-term self-interest (as opposed to just their immediate short-term desires), but that they have reason to, whereas the claim that they have similar reasons to care about or respect the interests of others is some kind of “queer” claim standing in need of special explanation…. Theoretical, moral, and practical reasoning all ultimately depend on foundational axioms that can’t be established without circularity. In logic, it’s the familiar list of axioms and inference rules; in ethics, it’s the basic idea that other people are real, and that their happiness and suffering fundamentally matters in some way, just as much as your own. That all these forms of reasoning “hit bottom” at some point is, admittedly, intellectually unsatisfying. But it’s also a fact we’re stuck with, and trying to dismiss those foundational domain-specific axioms as mere intuition seems less like a road to progress than an attempt to change the subject.

Sanchez’s point — a good one — is that it matters not where empathy comes from. It may be a genetic quirk, or it may be a socialized habit of thought, or it may be both. But it is a fact of life, just as much as self-interest. And it takes both of them — in my view — to account for the morality of the Golden Rule.

That morality, however, leads to a different kind of libertarianism than the one to which most self-styled libertarians seem to subscribe. Returning to “The Golden Rule and the State“:

The Golden Rule can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule — the negative one — is compatible with the idea of negative rights, but it doesn’t demand them. The second sub-rule — the positive one — doesn’t yield positive rights because it’s a counsel to kindness and charity, not a command….

An ardent individualist — particularly an anarcho-capitalist — might insist that social comity can be based on the negative sub-rule, which is represented by the first five items in the “core” list. I doubt it. There’s but a short psychological distance from mean-spiritedness — failing to be kind and charitable — to sociopathy, a preference for harmful acts. Ardent individualists will disagree with me because they view kindness and charity as their business, and no one else’s. They’re right about that, as far as I’m concerned, but I’m talking about proclivities, not rights. But kindness and charity are indispensable to the development of mutual trust among people who live in close proximity, without the protective cover of an external agency (e.g., the state). Without mutual trust, mutual restraint becomes problematic and co-existence becomes a matter of “getting the other guy before he gets you” — a convention that I hereby dub the Radioactive Rule.

Nevertheless, the positive sub-rule, which is represented by the final two items in the “core” list, can be optional for the occasional maverick. An extreme individualist (or introvert or grouch) could be a member in good standing of a society that lives by the Golden Rule. He would be a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule, and would not care that his unwillingness to offer kindness and charity resulted in coldness toward him. Coldness is all he would receive (and want) because, as a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule; his actions wouldn’t necessarily invite harm.

But too many extreme individualists would threaten the delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior that’s implied in the Golden Rule. Even if lives and livelihoods did not depend on acts of kindness and charity — and they probably would — mistrust would set it in. And from there, it would be a short distance to the Radioactive Rule.

This, of course, will not do for most libertarians, who want to manufacture a rigid list of negative rights from one of their mysterious sources. It even smacks of moral relativism. But I have answered both objections in “The Golden Rule and the State“:

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it….

Is the Golden Rule susceptible of varying interpretations across groups, and is it therefore a vehicle for moral relativism? I say “yes,” with qualifications. It’s true that groups vary in their conceptions of permissible behavior….

[But] [t]here is … a “core” Golden Rule that comes down to this:

  • Murder is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “taking” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “taking,” especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it.”)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art.”)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect.

But what I am talking about is true libertarianism, not the kind of “leave me alone” libertarianism that one usually encounters on the internet. As I say in “here,” true libertarianism

is really a kind of conservatism, which is why I call it Burkean libertarianism…. [T]he kind of “libertarianism” much in evidence on the internet … rests on the Nirvana fallacy and posits dangerously false ideals.

A “true” libertarian respects socially evolved norms because those norms evidence and sustain the mutual trust, respect, forbearance, and voluntary aid that — taken together — foster willing, peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. And what is liberty but willing peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior?

Such are the fruits of morality — on the mortal plane, at least.

Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held

Rights are behavioral norms that circumscribe the actions that may (or should) be taken with respect to a person, his property, and his pursuits.* Other behavioral norms are customs that an individual may or may not observe, and the non-observance of which may have social repercussions.

The precise scope of an individual’s rights and ability to exercise them depends on

  • whence they derive (source)
  • whether they apply universally or to specific groups of persons (applicability)
  • whether they are held by the persons to whom they apply or are granted by others (how held)
  • the effects of state action of the exercise of rights that would (or would not) be recognized by common consent.

There are certain predictable patters of belief about relationships among the first three attributes of rights: source, applicability, and how held. That is to say, where beliefs about rights are unforced by state action, persons who believe in God-given rights tend to think of them as universal and innate in the persons to whom they apply; persons who believe in rights as “things” with an existence of their own (Platonic ideals) tend to think of them as universal and innate in the persons to whom they apply; and so on, as outlined in the table below. As indicated, the state can (and does) shape and apply rights differently than would be the case if they were described and defined by like-minded persons.

Extreme libertarians — who tend to be both atheists and absolutists — often view rights as Platonic essences. Those who understand that they have subscribed to a supernatural explanation of rights then turn to biological evolution, which is their God-substitute.

For my own part, I take the indefiniteness of rights as evidence that they are the products of social evolution — or would be if it were not for interference by the state. Rights, as products of social evolution, are strictures on interpersonal behavior, not “essences” that emanate from individuals. Rights, therefore, are culturally variable in their precise contours, but certain constants of human nature (empathy, self-interest) lead most cultures in the direction of a modus vivendi like the Golden Rule. These observations apply to socially evolved rights, not to the rights that arise (or are denied) by the intervention of the state and persons or groups (e.g., warlords) with state-like power.
__________
* This definition implies that rights are negative. As I say here,

rights can’t be rights if they can’t be held universally, without cost to others. The right not to be murdered is such a right; the right to live on the public dole is not. We can, in theory, forbear from murdering each other, but we cannot all be on the public dole except (possibly) at different times. And even then we must impose on others (including those who would prefer to be on the public dole at the same time).

All of this is a way of stating  the doctrine of negative rights, which is the basis of libertarianism. But negative rights can’t be applied universally if there are some holdouts who want others to give to them without having to give to others….

Positive rights — the “right” to be on the dole, etc. — are, in this day, state-created rights. Positive rights, under the state, require compulsion.

There can be positive rights by common consent, but that is possible only in relatively small communities. As I say here,

self-governance by mutual consent and mutual restraint — by adherence to the Golden Rule — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons: the size of a hunter-gatherer band or Hutterite colony. It seems that self-governance breaks down when a group is larger than 150 persons.

Adherence to the Golden Rules implies voluntary aid to others, not only out of love and empathy but also in the self-interested expectation of reciprocal treatment. But the Golden Rule can be a rule of coexistence — rather than a mere admonition — only for relatively small groups.

*   *   *

Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Parsing Political Philosophy
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Unreality of Objectivism
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
Social Justice
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Understanding Hayek
The Left and Its Delusions
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Crimes against Humanity

The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning

I have argued that cooperative behavior and mutual restraint — the bulwarks of civil society and liberty — arise from observance of the Golden Rule. (See this, this, and this, for example.)  There is some new evidence for the importance of the Golden Rule as a regulatory mechanism:

Despite the fact that cooperation in one-shot interactions is viewed as both biologically maladaptive and economically irrational, it is nonetheless behaviorally widespread in our species. This apparent anomaly has posed a challenge to well-established theories in biology and economics, and it has motivated the development of a diverse array of alternatives—alternatives that seem to either conflict with known selection pressures or sensitively depend on extensive sets of untested assumptions.

These alternatives all assume that one-shot cooperation is an anomaly that cannot be explained by the existence of cooperative architectures that evolved for direct reciprocity. Our main results show that this assumption is false: organisms undergoing nothing but a selective regime for direct reciprocity typically evolved to cooperate even in the presence of strong evidence that they were in one-shot interactions. Indeed, our simulated organisms can form explicit beliefs that their interactions are one-shot and, nonetheless, be very likely to cooperate. By explicitly modeling the informational ecology of cooperation, the decision-making steps involved in operating in this ecology, and selection for efficiently balancing the asymmetric costs of different decision errors, we show that one-shot cooperation is the expected expression of evolutionarily well-engineered decision-making circuitry specialized for effective reciprocity.

This cooperation-elevating effect is strong across broad regions of parameter space. Although it is difficult to precisely map parameters in simplified models to real-world conditions, we suspect that selection producing one-shot generosity is likely
to be especially strong for our species. The human social world—ancestrally and currently—involves an abundance of high-iteration repeat interactions and high-benefit exchanges. Indeed, when repeated interactions are at least moderately long, even modest returns to cooperation seem to select for decision architectures designed to cooperate even when they believe that their interaction will be one-shot. We think that this effect would be even stronger had our model included the effects of forming reputations among third parties. If defection damages one’s reputation among third parties, thereby precluding cooperation with others aside from one’s current partner, defection would be selected against far more strongly (44). Therefore, it is noteworthy that cooperation given a one-shot belief evolves even in the simple case where selection for reputation enhancement cannot help it along. It is also worth noting that a related selection pressure—defecting when you believe your partner will not observe you—should be subject to analogous selection pressures. Uncertainty and error attach to judgments that one’s actions will not be observed, and the asymmetric consequences of false positives and misses should shape the attractiveness of defection in this domain as well.

In short, the conditions that promote the evolution of reciprocity—numerous repeat interactions and high-benefit exchanges—tend to promote one-shot generosity as well. Consequently, one-shot generosity should commonly coevolve with reciprocity. This statement is not a claim that direct reciprocity is the only force shaping human cooperation—only that if reciprocity is selected for (as it obviously was in humans), its existence casts a halo of generosity across a broad
variety of circumstances.

According to this analysis, generosity evolves because, at the ultimate level, it is a high-return cooperative strategy. Yet to implement this strategy at the proximate level, motivational and representational systems may have been selected to cause generosity even in the absence of any apparent potential for gain.Human generosity, far from being a thin veneer of cultural conditioning atop a Machiavellian core, may turn out to be a bedrock feature of human nature. (Andrew W. Delton, Max M. Krasnow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, “Evolution of direct reciprocity under uncertainty can
explain human generosity in one-shot encounters
,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Early Edition, July 25, 2011.)

The authors assume but offer no evidence that one-shot cooperation is an evolutionarily acquired trait. A stronger position  is that one-shot cooperation is a culturally transmitted trait. In any event, the authors’ findings underscore the importance of the Golden Rule to liberty. As I say in ““Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights,”

the Golden Rule represents a social compromise that reconciles the various natural imperatives of human behavior (envy, combativeness, meddlesomeness, etc.). Even though human beings have truly natural proclivities, those proclivities do not dictate the existence of “natural rights.” They certainly do not dictate “natural rights” that are solely the negative rights of libertarian doctrine. To the extent that negative rights prevail, it is as part and parcel of the “bargain” that is embedded in the Golden Rule; that is, they are honored not because of their innateness in humans but because of their beneficial consequences.

Evolution and the Golden Rule

Famed biologist E.O. Wilson has recanted the evolutionary theory of kin selection:

apparent strategies in evolution that favor the reproductive success of an organism’s relatives, even at a cost to their own survival and/or reproduction.

Here is an explanation of Wilson’s change of mind:

Wilson said he first gave voice to his doubts in 2004, by which point kin selection theory had been widely accepted as the explanation for the evolution of altruism. “I pointed out that there were a lot of problems with the kin selection hypothesis, with the original Hamilton formulation, and with the way it had been elaborated mathematically by a very visible group of enthusiasts,” Wilson said. “So I suggested an alternative theory.”

The alternative theory holds that the origins of altruism and teamwork have nothing to do with kinship or the degree of relatedness between individuals. The key, Wilson said, is the group: Under certain circumstances, groups of cooperators can out-compete groups of non-cooperators, thereby ensuring that their genes — including the ones that predispose them to cooperation — are handed down to future generations. This so-called group selection, Wilson insists, is what forms the evolutionary basis for a variety of advanced social behaviors linked to altruism, teamwork, and tribalism — a position that other scientists have taken over the years, but which historically has been considered, in Wilson’s own word, “heresy.” (“Where does good come from?” in The Boston Globe online, April 17, 2011)

I will concede a role for evolution in the development of human behavioral norms. But, as I say in “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,”

The painful truth that vast numbers of human beings — past and present — have not acted and do not act as if there are “natural rights” suggests that the notion of “natural rights” is of little practical consequence….

Even if humans are wired to leave others alone as they are left alone, it is evident that they are not wired exclusively in that way.

Cooperative behavior is a loosely observed norm, at best. (For the benefit of “liberals,” I must point out that cooperation can only be voluntary; state-coerced “cooperation” is dictated by force.) Cooperation, such as it is, probably occurs for the reasons I give in “The Golden Rule and the State“:

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

I must qualify the term “convention,” to say that the Golden Rule will be widely observed within any group only if the members of that group are generally agreed about the definition of harm, value kindness and charity (in the main), and (perhaps most importantly) see that their acts have consequences. If those conditions are not met, the Golden Rule descends from convention to admonition.

Is the Golden Rule susceptible of varying interpretations across groups, and is it therefore a vehicle for moral relativism? I say “yes,” with qualifications. It’s true that groups vary in their conceptions of permissible behavior. For example, the idea of allowing, encouraging, or aiding the death of old persons is not everywhere condemned, and many recognize it as an inevitable consequence of a health-care “system” that is government-controlled (even indirectly) and treats the delivery of medical services as a matter of rationing…. Infanticide has a long history in many cultures; modern, “enlightened” cultures have simply replaced it with abortion. Slavery is still an acceptable practice in some places, though those enslaved (as in the past) usually are outsiders. Homosexuality has a long history of condemnation and occasional acceptance. To be pro-homosexual — and especially to favor homosexual “marriage” — has joined the litany of “causes” that signal leftist “enlightenment,” along with being for abortion and against the consumption of fossil fuels (except for one’s SUV, of course).

The foregoing recitation suggests a mixture of reasons for favoring or disfavoring certain behaviors. Those reasons range from purely utilitarian ones (agreeable or not) to status-signaling. In between, there are religious and consequentialist reasons, which are sometimes related. Consequentialist reasoning goes like this: Behavior X can be indulged responsibly and without harm to others, but there lurks the danger that it will not be, or that it will lead to behavior Y, which has repercussions for others. Therefore, it’s better to put X off-limits or to severely restrict and monitor it. Consequentialist reasoning applies to euthanasia (it’s easy to slide from voluntary to involuntary acts, especially when the state controls the delivery of medical care), infanticide and abortion (forms of involuntary euthanasia and signs of disdain for life), homosexuality (a depraved, risky practice that can ensnare impressionable young persons who see it as an “easy” way to satisfy sexual urges), alcohol and drugs (addiction carries a high cost, for the addict, the addict’s family, and sometimes for innocent bystanders). A taste or tolerance for destructive behavior identifies a person as an untrustworthy social partner.

It seems to me that the exceptions listed above are just that. There’s a mainstream interpretation of the Golden Rule — one that still holds in many places — which rules out certain kinds of behavior, except in extreme situations, and permits certain other kinds of behavior. There is, in other words, a “core” Golden Rule that comes down to this:

  • Murder is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “taking” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “taking,” especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it.”)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art.”)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect.

None of these observations would be surprising to a person raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or even in the less vengeful branches of Islam. The observations would be especially unsurprising to an American who was raised in a rural, small-town, or small-city setting, well removed from a major metropolis, or who was raised in an ethnic enclave in a major metropolis. For it is such persons and, to some extent, their offspring who are the principal heirs and keepers of the Golden Rule in America.

There is far more to human behavior than biological and evolutionary determinism. (Not that Wilson is guilty of that, but many others are.) It is especially simplistic to rely on biological and evolutionary explanations of the particular subset of behavioral rules known as “rights.” For the final word on that point, I return to “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’”:

[T]he Golden Rule represents a social compromise that reconciles the various natural imperatives of human behavior (envy, combativeness, meddlesomeness, etc.). Even though human beings have truly natural proclivities, those proclivities do not dictate the existence of “natural rights.” They certainly do not dictate “natural rights” that are solely the negative rights of libertarian doctrine. To the extent that negative rights prevail, it is as part and parcel of the “bargain” that is embedded in the Golden Rule; that is, they are honored not because of their innateness in humans but because of their beneficial consequences.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I

I recently discovered James Fitzjames Stephen’s long essay, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Stephen (1829-94) was an uncle of Virginia Woolf, whose mush-minded feminism was antithetical to her uncle’s rigorous cast of mind.

I am working my way through Stephen’s essay. As I proceed I will post and comment on especially trenchant passages. In this first installment, I offer some excerpts of the Foreword by Stuart Warner, editor of the Liberty Fund edition (linked above). My comments are in bold type; everything else is a direct quotation from the Liberty Fund edition.

FOREWORD

James Fitzjames Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity figured prominently in the mid- to late nineteenth century Victorian debates on two concepts at the heart of politics in the modern world—liberty and equality. Understanding himself to be a defender of an older English Liberalism that he thought to be under assault and weakening at an ever-quickening pace, Stephen attempted in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to offer a corrective to what he believed were the mistaken views of liberty, equality, and fraternity that were leading the charge. He found these views most fully and powerfully expressed in three of John Stuart Mill’s works: On Liberty, The Subjection of Women, and Utilitarianism. Stephen thus subjected Mill’s political philosophy to intense criticism in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Yet Stephen was no mere polemicist, and throughout Liberty, Equality, Fraternity we find Stephen’s own understanding of liberty—as ordered liberty—equality—as equality under law—and fraternity—as a value incompatible with a free society—braided around his critique of Mill. And it is this understanding that is the most important feature of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and is eminently worthy of the attention of anyone concerned with the character of a free society….

The French Revolution gave birth to the creed “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”; however, this creed outlasted the Revolution, finding expression in the nineteenth century, both on the continent and in England. In offering a powerful polemic against this creed in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Stephen is most emphatically not presenting himself as a defender of, as he puts it, “Slavery, Caste, and Hatred.” But he believed that many exponents of the creed of liberty, equality, and fraternity exaggerated the advantages and ignored the disadvantages of the political arrangements intended by this famed triptych of values, thereby distorting a proper understanding of liberty, equality, and fraternity along the way. In Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Stephen makes a point of revealing the character of these disadvantages….

…Stephen recognizes liberty to be an instrumental value, not a value in and of itself; and the ultimate value that liberty principally serves is the well-being of society. We should be careful not to misunderstand this feature of Stephen’s thought—as a common understanding of Stephen would have us do—as portraying either a disregard for liberty or an authoritarian bent, for Liberty, Equality, Fraternity does not support such a reading. Not to value liberty as an end in itself is not to treat it lightly or to shy away from its endorsement as central to a civilized world. It is rather, as Stephen would see it, an admission that liberty, along with all of the other social elements of human life, has its advantages and disadvantages; and, if we are primarily concerned with the well-being of society, then we should not blindly support any given liberty in those circumstances in which its disadvantages outweigh its advantages.

The second feature of Stephen’s conception of liberty is that liberty is fundamentally a negative concept. Stephen understands liberty at its core to be an absence of restraint; however, liberty cannot be understood to involve an absence of all restraint; for Stephen, like Hobbes, recognizes that it is impossible for a society and, therefore, liberty to exist in the absence of all restraint. Restraints are required if there is to be any society at all, if only because the human condition is one in which the actions of some frequently and inevitably conflict with the actions of others. This understanding of the role of restraint in society is the basis for Stephen’s distinguishing between liberty and license, and it encourages him to understand liberty as an “absence of injurious restraint.”In this conception of liberty, morality, law, and religion are understood to restrain an individual’s actions, but not injuriously, and hence do not constitute an infringement of his liberty. In fact, in the deepest sense, it is these restraints that make liberty of action possible. And since these restraints constitute a realm of power, Stephen can maintain that, “Liberty, from the very nature of things, is dependent upon power….”…

Stephen is promoting an understanding of ordered liberty or liberty under morality and law. Part of the value of liberty lies in its allowing individuals to pursue their own choices or, more exactly, a certain set of choices rather than others, for this contributes to the well-being of society. Importantly, some sets of choices must be excluded. Genuine options are possible for human beings only within the context of a web of restraint provided by the moral, political, legal, and religious institutions that form the social arrangements in which individuals can pursue their own ends in concert with one another. Therefore, on Stephen’s analysis, the character and value of liberty reside in the restraints that frame it: there is no liberty outside of restraint.

Morality is foremost among the restraints that shape society generally and a free society in particular. For Stephen, morality is constituted in some measure by the fear of disapprobation, the fear of the opinion of others, the fear of being ostracized. Thus, Stephen remarks that “the custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion is the essence of morality.” And this aversion or disapprobation Stephen understands as being coercive. Although morality on this account might therefore be considered a system of force, the force in question is the pressure imposed by others and not punishment (or the threat of punishment) inflicted by government. Here we must underscore the idea that, as Stephen sees it, the restraints imposed by morality are vastly more extensive and important than those of law in establishing the web of restraint in which liberty is formed and has value:

Criminal legislation proper may be regarded as an engine of prohibition unimportant in comparison with morals and the forms of morality sanctioned by theology. For one act from which one person is restrained by the fear of the law of the land, many persons are restrained from innumerable acts by the fear of the disapprobation of their neighbors, which is the moral sanction; or by the fear of punishment in a future state of existence, which is the religious sanction; or by the fear of their own disapprobation, which may be called the conscientious sanction….

Given that liberty is of instrumental value for Stephen, it is easy to understand why he rejects any categorical, simple principle of liberty, one that would specify exactly which liberties should be protected, and where and when. “We must,” Stephen writes, “proceed in a far more cautious way, and confine ourselves to such remarks as experience suggests about the advantages and disadvantages of compulsion and liberty respectively in particular cases.” However, there are certain liberties that Stephen highlights in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and in other of his writings that he believes to be of paramount importance to civilized life. The first is property: “Of all items of liberty, none is either so important or so universally recognized as the liberty of acquiring property.”  The second liberty of great importance to Stephen, perhaps surprisingly, is privacy: “Legislation and public opinion ought in all cases whatever scrupulously to respect privacy…. To try to regulate the internal affairs of a family, the relations of love or friendship, or many other things of the same sort, by law or by the coercion of public opinion, is like trying to pull an eyelash out of a man’s eye with a pair of tongs. They may put out the eye, but they will never get hold of the eyelash.”

Essential to protecting these liberties and others is the rule of law. And so closely linked is the rule of law to various liberties that Stephen suggests the rule of law is itself a liberty; for in a significant way, the procedures afforded to individuals by the rule of law specify the liberties that an individual has.

For Stephen, the rule of law is a remarkable moral conquest, a monumental achievement over despotism and the desires of some to enslave others for their own purposes. The rule of law both constitutes and vouchsafes liberties that Stephen, although holding them to be instrumentally valuable, embraces and understands to be of paramount importance to the civilized world he deeply valued….

Legislate how you will, establish universal suffrage, if you think proper, as a law which can never be broken. You are still as far as ever from equality. Political power has changed its shape but not its nature. The result of cutting it up into little bits is simply that the man who can sweep the greatest number of them into one heap will govern the rest….

Whatever may be the benefits of democracy, it also levies severe costs that render it a languid business. For the “wirepullers” need only satisfy an ignorant multitude, and this, Stephen feared, would ultimately lead to a debased and mediocre culture, one predicated on sordidness and vulgarity. In order to satisfy the unenlightened, these new rulers would extend government into the deepest recesses of the lives of individuals, willingly abandoning certain liberties along the way.

The final paragraph is a diamond, in a field of precious stones.

I have written so many posts which touch on the themes sketched by Warner that I can only refer you to a sample of them:
The Paradox of Libertarianism
On Liberty
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Inventing “Liberalism”
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Line-Drawing and Liberty
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?

Government vs. Community

Tibor Machan reminds us that, contra Paul Krugman, government is not community:

Finally Paul Krugman, Princeton University Nobel Laureate in economic science and columnist for The New York Times, has come clean about his “moral” position (TNYT, January 14, 2011). He has admitted that he doesn’t believe that when you earn something, you own it….

If my life doesn’t belong to me–if the norm the Declaration of Independence identifies as universal, namely, that every human being has a right to his or her life, is false–then what is true? Does my life belong to the government? If we recall that government is a group of individuals to whom a certain social role has been delegated–namely, the role of securing the rights of the citizenry–the claim that government owns our lives and resources means nothing else but that these individuals in government own our lives and resources.

But that is very odd–why would those people be in the privileged position of owning us and what to all appearances belongs to us while we, also human beings and with equal rights, do not own our lives and resources? This makes no sense….

The idea that we belong to government is obscene and harks back to an age when Caesars, monarchs, tsars, Pharaohs and such were believed to have been given their realm by God and everything within that realm, including all the human beings, therefore belonged to them. Later these slaves and serfs began to be called subjects, implying that they were all subject to the will of the government. This is were serfdom and even taxation have their origin….

An essential aspect of any bona fide moral position is that it must be practiced voluntarily, not because someone–e. g., government–holds a gun to one’s head and coerces one to do what is right. That doesn’t count as doing the right thing, so any such policy is literally demoralizing. It robs people of the opportunity to be morally good (or bad, of course).

A society that’s fit for human habitation must not have policies that prevent citizens from exercising moral judgment. So, OK, assume for a moment that we should devote ourselves entirely to serving other people, to serving the public good. If, however, all of this is accomplished through governmental coercion like taxation, regulation, regimentation, and so forth, there can’t be anything moral about it. So Dr. Krugman’s so called moral stance isn’t one at all. It leaves no room for morality because it makes all purportedly moral conduct involuntary, imposed by rulers and not a matter of one’s own free will.

Sharing at the point of a gun is not sharing, it is theft. When government forces “sharing,” it removes opportunities for true acts of kindness and charity. It is such acts that help to foster a sense of community. And a sense of community is essential to civility.

Government interventions in economic affairs are therefore destructive of the social bonds that inhibit anti-social and criminal conduct. It follows that government interventions in economic affairs lead to increasingly expensive and oppressive efforts by government to regulate social conduct.

Related posts:
Enough of Krugman
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
An Encounter with a Marxist
The Golden Rule and the State

The Golden Rule and the State

To suggest, as I have in the preceding post and many others, that positive rights are inimical to liberty, is to imply that liberty is an entirely negative thing: the absence of interference in one’s life, except as one interferes in the lives of others. There’s a persistent and often persuasive counter-argument, which says that liberty is hollow if a person lacks the wherewithal to pursue its fruits. That argument for positive rights can be met with three counter-arguments:

  • The use of state power to grant positive rights diminishes the charitable impulse, along with the ability to indulge it.
  • Redistribution of income — which supports positive rights like welfare and results from positive rights like affirmative action — leads to a slower rate of economic growth because (a) it takes money from those most able to fund capital investments and gives it to those who simply consume it and (b) requires firms to employ less-productive workers in favor of more-productive ones. Two key results, which obtain in the  not-very-long run, are (a) fewer and less remunerative jobs for groups that positive rights are meant to help and (b), as noted above, less money for private acts of charity.
  • It’s presumptuous of a third party to decide who deserves more and who deserves less. Any claim that redistributive acts foster “social welfare” rests on the erroneous view that the well-being of individuals can be added, in some fashion, to derive an aggregate measure of well-being. In fact, the harm that’s done to A by giving some of his income to B cannot be undone by whatever enjoyment B derives from the additional income.

At which point, obdurate proponents of positive rights (i.e., left-statists, bleeding hearts, and do-gooders) will say something like this: “Well, it’s only fair/just to help those who are in need/born in poverty/born with the wrong skin color/unlucky in life/etc., etc.” The arguments against positive rights, no matter how well stated or supported, will simply roll off most proponents of such rights because it’s in their nature to want “fairness”/”justice” — and damn the consequences. It’s also in the nature of left-statists to relish the power of controlling others, against which there is no counter-argument but defeat at the polls, civil disobedience, or secession.

The argument about rights, in other words, is a futile one that ought to be abandoned in favor of one that might have more appeal to those who favor positive rights. The alternative — which, I admit, is a long shot — is a very old concept, about which I’ve written before (here and here, for example). The very old concept is the Golden Rule: One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. It’s a truly natural law, for reasons I give below.

The Golden Rule can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule — the negative one — is compatible with the idea of negative rights, but it doesn’t demand them. The second sub-rule — the positive one — doesn’t yield positive rights because it’s a counsel to kindness and charity, not a command.

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct (e.g., the “given-if-then” formulation discussed in the preceding post) nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

I must qualify the term “convention,” to say that the Golden Rule will be widely observed within any group only if the members of that group are generally agreed about the definition of harm, value kindness and charity (in the main), and (perhaps most importantly) see that their acts have consequences. If those conditions are not met, the Golden Rule descends from convention to admonition.

Is the Golden Rule susceptible of varying interpretations across groups, and is it therefore a vehicle for moral relativism? I say “yes,” with qualifications. It’s true that groups vary in their conceptions of permissible behavior. For example, the idea of allowing, encouraging, or aiding the death of old persons is not everywhere condemned, and many recognize it as an inevitable consequence of a health-care “system” that is government-controlled (even indirectly) and treats the delivery of medical services as a matter of rationing. (I am willing to bet that the affluent left-statists who strongly support nationalized medical care would find ways to avoid the verdicts of “death panels,” when it comes to them and their families.)  Infanticide has a long history in many cultures; modern, “enlightened” cultures have simply replaced it with abortion. Slavery is still an acceptable practice in some places, though those enslaved (as in the past) usually are outsiders. Homosexuality has a long history of condemnation and occasional acceptance. To be pro-homosexual — and especially to favor homosexual “marriage” — has joined the litany of “causes” that signal leftist “enlightenment,” along with being for abortion and against the consumption of fossil fuels (except for one’s SUV, of course).

The foregoing recitation suggests a mixture of reasons for favoring or disfavoring certain behaviors. Those reasons range from purely utilitarian ones (agreeable or not) to status-signaling. In between, there are religious and consequentialist reasons, which are sometimes related. Consequentialist reasoning goes like this: Behavior X can be indulged responsibly and without harm to others, but there lurks the danger that it will not be, or that it will lead to behavior Y, which has repercussions for others. Therefore, it’s better to put X off-limits or to severely restrict and monitor it. Consequentialist reasoning applies to euthanasia (it’s easy to slide from voluntary to involuntary acts, especially when the state controls the delivery of medical care), infanticide and abortion (forms of involuntary euthanasia and signs of disdain for life), homosexuality (a depraved, risky practice that can ensnare impressionable young persons who see it as an “easy” way to satisfy sexual urges), alcohol and drugs (addiction carries a high cost, for the addict, the addict’s family, and sometimes for innocent bystanders). A taste or tolerance for destructive behavior identifies a person as an untrustworthy social partner.

It seems to me that the exceptions listed above are just that. There’s a mainstream interpretation of the Golden Rule — one that still holds in many places — which rules out certain kinds of behavior, except in extreme situations, and permits certain other kinds of behavior. There is, in other words, a “core” Golden Rule that comes down to this:

  • Killing is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “taking” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “taking,” especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it.”)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art.”)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect.

None of these observations would be surprising to a person raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or even in the less vengeful branches of Islam. The observations would be especially unsurprising to an American who was raised in a rural, small-town, or small-city setting, well removed from a major metropolis, or who was raised in an ethnic enclave in a major metropolis. For it is such persons and, to some extent, their offspring who are the principal heirs and keepers of the Golden Rule in America.

An ardent individualist — particularly an anarcho-capitalist — might insist that social comity can be based on the negative sub-rule, which is represented by the first five items in the “core” list. I doubt it. There’s but a short psychological distance from mean-spiritedness — failing to be kind and charitable — to sociopathy, a preference for harmful acts. Ardent individualists will disagree with me because they view kindness and charity as their business, and no one else’s. They’re right about that, as far as I’m concerned, but I’m talking about proclivities, not rights. But kindness and charity are indispensable to the development of mutual trust among people who live in close proximity, without the protective cover of an external agency (e.g., the state). Without mutual trust, mutual restraint becomes problematic and co-existence becomes a matter of “getting the other guy before he gets you” — a convention that I hereby dub the Radioactive Rule.

Nevertheless, the positive sub-rule, which is represented by the final two items in the “core” list, can be optional for the occasional maverick. An extreme individualist (or introvert or grouch) could be a member in good standing of a society that lives by the Golden Rule. He would be a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule, and would not care that his unwillingness to offer kindness and charity resulted in coldness toward him. Coldness is all he would receive (and want) because, as a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule; his actions wouldn’t necessarily invite harm.

But too many extreme individualists would threaten the delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior that’s implied in the Golden Rule. Even if lives and livelihoods did not depend on acts of kindness and charity — and they probably would — mistrust would set it in. And from there, it would be a short distance to the Radioactive Rule.

Of course, the delicate balance would be upset if the Golden Rule were violated with impunity. For that reason, the it must be backed by sanctions. Non-physical sanctions would range from reprimands to ostracism. For violations of the negative sub-rule, imprisonment and corporal punishment would not be out of the question.

Now comes a dose of reality. Self-governance by mutual consent and mutual restraint — by voluntary adherence to the Golden Rule — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons: the size of a hunter-gatherer band or Hutterite colony. It seems that self-governance breaks down when a group is larger than 150 persons. Why should that happen? Because mutual trust, mutual restraint, and mutual aid — the things implied in the Golden Rule — depend very much on personal connections. A person who is loathe to say a harsh word to an acquaintance, friend, or family member — even when provoked — often waxes abusive toward strangers, especially in this era of e-mail and comment threads, where face-to-face encounters aren’t involved.  More generally, it’s a human tendency to treat acquaintances differently than strangers; the former are accorded more trust, more cooperation, and more kindness than the latter. Why? Because there’s usually a difference between the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward strangers and the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward persons one knows, lives among, and depends upon for restraint, cooperation, and help. The allure of  doing harm without penalty (“getting away with something”) or receiving without giving (“getting something for nothing”)  becomes harder to resist as one’s social distance from others increases.

When self-governance breaks down, it becomes necessary to spin off a new group or to establish a central power (a state) to establish and enforce rules of behavior (negative and positive). The problem, of course, is that those vested with the power of the state quickly learn to use it to advance their own preferences and interests, and to perpetuate their power by granting favors to those who can keep them in office. It is a rare state that is created for the sole purpose of protecting its citizens from one another and from outsiders, and rarer still is the state that remains true to such purposes.

In sum, the Golden Rule — as a uniting way of life — is quite unlikely to survive the passage of a group from community to state. Nor does the Golden Rule as a uniting way of life have much chance of revival or survival where the state already dominates. The Golden Rule may have limited effect within well-defined groups (e.g., parishes, clubs, urban enclaves, rural communities), by regulating the interactions among the members of such groups. It may have a vestigial effect on face-to-face interactions between stranger and stranger, but that effect arises mainly from the fear that offense or harm will be met with the same, not from a communal bond.

In any event, the dominance of the state distorts behavior. For example, the state may enable and encourage acts (e.g., abortion, homosexuality) that had been discouraged as harmful by group norms; the ability of members of the group to bestow charity on one another may be diminished by the loss of income to taxes and discouraged by the establishment of state-run schemes that mimic the effects of charity (e.g., Social Security).

In a future post, I will address the challenge of re-forming the state to reinvigorate the Golden Rule.

A Moralist’s Moral Blindness

Bryan Caplan restates his version of the Golden Rule, which is that “we” ought to be treated just as “we” would treat others. (My take on Caplan’s earlier post is here.) Much as I like the Golden Rule, for its civilizing influence on humans, I am not a simple-minded moralist like Caplan and other libertarian purists.

Caplan objects to the “double standard” by which Americans, for example, would praise the killing of enemy civilians, were it a necessary act of war, but condemn the killing of 3,000 Americans by an enemy who proclaims his act necessary in the service of some objective. I wonder if Caplan would object to the “double standard” when faced with the prospect of his children being among the 3,000 Americans killed.

The Golden Rule also is known as the ethic of reciprocity, and for a good reason. For the Golden Rule to operate effectively, it must be accompanied by a reasonable expectation that your mundane acts of self-restraint and helpfulness will be returned in kind by persons whose lives touch yours, or with whom you share a bond of kinship or culture.

The Golden Rule simply doesn’t operate very well across personal, familial, or cultural boundaries, Caplan’s wishful thinking to the contrary. (Consider, for example, the rudeness that often prevails in anonymous encounters over the internet and on the highway.) And there is no inherent reason that the Golden Rule should operate well across those boundaries, just because Caplan (or any other intellectual) asserts that it should. Who died and left him (and his ilk) in charge?

There are other moral considerations at work, aside from reciprocity. One of them, which I discussed in my previous post, is the ethic of mutual defense:

[W]ho better to help you defend yourself than the people with whom you share space, be it a neighborhood, a city-state, a principality, or even a vast nation? As a member of one or the other, you may be targeted for harm by outsiders who wish to seize your land and control your wealth, or who simply dislike your way of life, even if it does them no harm.

If, like Caplan, you are willing to allow an enemy to obliterate some of your fellow citizens because you have obliterated some enemy citizens, you are not to be trusted. You might as well be an enemy.

More generally, Caplan’s moral blindness betrays his Rationalism. As Michael Oakeshott explains,

the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration….

… And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. (“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)

Thomas Sowell puts it this way:

One of the things intellectuals [his Rationalists] have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society [or a nation] together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia….

Under the influence of the intelligentsia, we have become a society that rewards people with admiration for violating its own norms and for fragmenting that society into jarring segments. In addition to explicit denigrations of their own society for its history or current shortcomings, intellectuals often set up standards for their society which no society has ever met or is likely to meet.

Calling those standards “social justice” enables intellectuals to engage in endless complaints about the particular ways in which society fails to meet their arbitrary criteria, along with a parade of groups entitled to a sense of grievance, exemplified in the “race, class and gender” formula…. (Intellectuals and Society, pp. 303, 305)

Sowell’s attack is aimed at left-wing intellectuals, but it could just as well be aimed at libertarian purists like Caplan and his ilk.

Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State

A right, as opposed to a privilege, is capable of universal application within a polity. The only true rights, therefore, are liberty rights, which are negative rights. So-called positive rights are privileges, not rights.

Liberty rights are represented in the Founders’ trinity of “unalienable Rights“: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These really constitute a unitary right, which I simply call liberty. The liberty right is unitary because liberty (as a separate right) is meaningless without life and the ability to pursue happiness. Thus we have this: rights ≡ liberty (rights and liberty are identical). The identity of rights and liberty is consistent with this definition of liberty:

3. A right or immunity to engage in certain actions without control or interference.

In essence, liberty consists of negative rights (the right not be attacked, robbed, etc.). Negative rights are true rights because they are capable of universal application: Leaving others alone (the essence of negative rights) costs each of us nothing and yields liberty for all.

Positive rights (the right to welfare benefits, a job based on one’s color or gender, etc.) are not rights, properly understood, because they are not capable of universal application: Taking from others (the requisite of positive rights) costs some of us something without an offsetting return. (Think, for example, of the redistributional effects of various taxes.) Positive rights cannot be had without engaging in actions that control or interfere with others. Positive rights are anti-libertarian privileges.

Liberty — rightly understood as the universal application of negative rights — is possible only when the Golden Rule is, in fact, the rule. The Golden Rule, which is the quintessential social norm, encapsulates a lesson learned over the eons of human coexistence. That lesson? If I desist from harming others, they (for the most part) will desist from harming me.

In civil society, exceptional behavior is dealt with by criticism and punishment (which may include ostracism). The exceptions usually are dealt with by codifying the myriad instances of the Golden Rule (e.g., do not steal, do not kill) and then enforcing those instances through communal action (i.e., justice and defense).

The exceptions that cannot be dealt with by civil society are the proper concern of the minimal state — one that is dedicated to the defense of its citizens from predators. But the state becomes illegitimate the moment it crosses the line from the enforcement of the Golden Rule (negative rights) to the granting of privileges (positive rights). For when the state does that, it is no longer dedicated to liberty.

Related posts:
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Democracy and Liberty
Inventing “Liberalism”
Parsing Political Philosophy
The Interest-Group Paradox
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Principles of Actionable Harm
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
A New (Cold) Civil War or Secession?
Civil War, Close Elections, and Voters’ Remorse
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism